Hush, writer, you can’t write that …
Or: Why do I hold back? A painful observation.
E.M. Cioran said: “Write books only if you say in them things you would not dare confide to anyone.”
Or in other words (and there are many similar citations by writers): write bravely and fearlessly and say what you wouldn’t say out loud.
This and similar truths stuck with me, and they bothered me. I feel like that. Lately, I hold back more, and maybe too much.
The topics I choose have a pattern that I only now recognised. When pondering my “themes” or topics I want to give a voice, I find that I mostly write female heroes. But flawed ones, struggling ones, who are challenged by their normal lives like we all are sometimes. I write Vikings. I try to achieve a natural, familiar perspective. I write about the slave rather than the princess. About normal people’s daily struggles and exceptional hardships or opportunities. I want to give a face to history, and emotions to facts. My own experiences and traumas can be found in the writing, as they should be.
When a museum like the Viking town at Hedeby states: “Child exposure and child killings were quite common” I cringe and my writer-mind goes: What did that horror really MEAN for the women? For all the humans involved back then? How did they feel/act? It was a different society and upbringing, but the emotional reactions can’t have been SO different from what we’d imagine today. I make up a story about these emotions, the trauma and challenges involved. That’s the hardships of ancient lives turned into stories.
But then I also love to write romance, because love and lust is ultimately human, too, and it is at the other end of that scale of emotions.
Desire can rise above all the dread of daily life and make life either much worse (if unfulfilled) OR open new perspectives, new horizons, it can heal and energise to do things one wouldn’t have dared to do before they met their lover (if fulfilled). I love to write about these encounters, how couples get together and find each other, and how they proceed. But the focus is on the finding, the seduction, the love-making and how it changes them. I love to write those without too much sweetness and moral involved, but in a more “earthy” way. This means I make them give in to their desires in a way that is carnal but beautiful. I write it all out, leaving the Viking bedroom door wide open, but with taste — I write what I’d like to read, and a certain vocabulary repels me, so I avoid it and invented my own sexy style to leave protagonists and readers in a state of overwhelmed afterglow. Haha. I hope so.
And here we are, the thinking starts:
I hesitate to count my writing among what is called “erotica” or “romance” or a mix of both, for several reasons (I don’t read the genre, for reason’s I stated here, and I don’t like pigeonholing, so I don’t “research” my own pigeonhole). I don’t want to give it much thought at all, where I’d fit, and maybe that’s daft of me. But it would make me want to stay within the boundaries and requirements of the genre in mind, and I want to write freely, unrestrained by these thoughts.
BUT: Upon reading the citation above, and then thinking about my stories’ topics and how I execute them … I found a change lately. I still only (and recently more than ever) want to write the “earthy” topics (love, lust, loss, and death) and let women of ancient times talk to today’s readers. I want readers to see how they could have felt. That their emotions are strangely exotic, but familiar. Pretty exactly since I write “professionally”, since I submit stories to mere strangers, to contests, to betas/editors, since I left the cosy writing tower and stuck my head out into open air …
Since I make myself vulnerable, something changed!
And that is what one of my betas called “overwriting”. She was right to observe that in some stories (early drafts, at least) you can see that I am thinking while writing. That I want too much (because I know so much more now), that I lost some of the fresh, carefree writing I used to have when there was nothing at stake, no reputation or career (however young) to take into account. There is too much head involved now. Another beta said that I “hold back where I formerly didn’t” (she referred to a steamy love-scene). That the writing was restrained. What a blow.
A few years back, I wrote mainly romance/erotica, contemporary or Viking-themed, and I had the couples desire and pleasure each other until they couldn’t ever let each other go again. I did it tastefully and I’m ashamed of nothing, and still have the readers’ enthusiastic comments in mind: “You pull it off every damned time!” “I had to hide in my room until I calmed down after that”, “I had to take a cold shower”, “I was grinning all day”. They called me “Queen of anticipation” because I love the power of a tense wait and slow approach. My characters stuck with them for a long time.
Those were the fun-days.
Now they are more work-days, and I shifted my topics slightly, too. I want to explore the ancient challenges more. I want to write more realistically, and talk about the cruelties of slavery, child-death, physical abuse, hunger, war etc. all these people (women especially) experienced. I also write about lust and desire and how a secret love can change lives. I still write the sex.
BUT I HOLD BACK MORE.
Yes. I admit it, because I’ve thought about it a lot. Since there’s something at stake, I restrain myself, or rather, I overthink it, hold back and evaluate. I am ambitious. I’ll look before I leap. But does that do the writing any good?
My instinct says: Above-mentioned citation is SO right. I’m doing it wrong. I should NOT hold back, not now, of all times! Now should be the time to push all those doubts aside and just WRITE, “sit down at a typewriter and bleed”, as Hemingway said.
As a writer who takes her job and career seriously, I know that my craft as such, the writing itself and the plotting of stories etc., has improved considerably since I left the cosy writing tower. I’m on it every day and exchange much more with other people, readers and writers, I try to learn and improve. I give advice to others. But would I give other writers the advice to hold back and evaluate first? NEVER. I’d say write your heart out, wring your souls out and bare it all. Be authentic and brave. Write what scares you.
I should, in fact, be writing about what it feels like to be raped, abused, robbed, and hurt. What it’s like to desire something or someone, to rise to any challenge to get it, and the pleasure it means to finally act on it. To be satisfied beyond what you thought possible. How this energy can change lives, and stories.
So I’m wrong.
But then why am I doing this?
Do all writers do this, at some stage in their career, I wonder?
Why do I hold back?
I came up with some reasons which I now have to work on in order to get my pure, careless writing soul back. Carelessness is good for all artistic work.
I’ve been holding back with the descriptive sex-scenes lately. At least when it comes to posting them to my site. The work-example I posted (The Shapes of Fire) is “sex without sex in it”. I normally write it all out, and tastefully, gently. But for my own site I held back. The lack of detail fits and has a purpose for this short story, alright, but it’s not typical for how I used to write sex. Have I suddenly become timid and shy away from describing what great sex can be? No. That’s not it. And then yes. There’s simply more at stake, and I try to protect my core.
In the same way, I’m holding back or at least think a lot more about my writing of violence, abuse and death. I think about the readers there, and what they’d think if I went all graphic. Is that nice of me or just wrong?
I’m also holding back my instinctive reactions a lot. My reactions to stuff I read, stuff I’m asked to review, I’m asked an opinion on, or want to challenge myself. I want to always be polite and professional, which one can be and still criticise things, I know. But I avoid that, I found. I don’t want to criticise other author-colleagues. We’re all in the same boat. But often I cringe and think “do it differently, don’t ruin all indie’s reputation”. Then I scold myself. I’d never say these things out loud. We’re all colleagues. But do I have to like all people and keep my opinions to myself? Of course not.
The same goes for opinions on controversial topics that may concern us all. I would like to speak out MUCH more on women’s rights and the perception of the female sex. On gendering, pigeonholing (again), child-abuse, emotional abuse of adults and children, repression … the list is long.
But can I speak out and how and where? Don’t I have to stay professional (I’d never curse or pick a fight online) and defend my “brand” I’m just trying to build up? Then I look around and ask myself: what to my colleagues do? The Chuck Wendigs, Delilah Dawsons, J.K.Rowlings (not that I’d ever compare myself to them ever). Is it because they are more successful and prominent that they have a better standing and are obliged to have opinions and voice them? What about us majority of mediocre-doing writers? Those careers in the making, can we equally voice our concerns and pick fights and speak out? Wouldn’t we risk what little we built up? Wouldn’t we lose readers, at least some of the few we have found yet? I’d be scared of that.
So I hold back for now. I’m just insecure. I could build up a whole new blog about female struggles and women’s rights. Or animal rights. Or children’s rights. Or gay/transgender-whatever rights. Indie-rights. The importance of indie-authors as the new, daring voices that would go unheard if we didn’t pluck up the courage to do all the work ourselves. So please help me:
I’m asking you: Do you have these concerns? Do you write as you should be writing (from your guts), or are you holding back? What is holding us back?
How did you learn to listen to your gut and push all the concerns away to once more write freely and unrestrained? Or is the concern a normal by-product of the career and we should embrace it? In which way?
And to the men out there: do you know these concerns or do you by nature care less about other people’s opinions and how a false decision (or too open speech) can ruin things for you? Is this assumption in itself sexist of me?
I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this. Please comment wildly and unrestrained in the section below.
We all need more courage.